Reaching students across the spectrum

A week in the life of Hillel Foundation

Elina Zakaryants, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee sophomore majoring in political science, said she likes to spend time at Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee “so she can hang out with Jews.”

Born in Uzbekistan, Zakaryants remembers the long flight to the United States that she took with her family to immigrate to this country when she was 7-years-old.

Raised in Whitefish Bay, and still living at home, Zakaryants attributes some of her attraction to Hillel to the fact that she grew up in “a non-Jewish area” and missed the company of her fellow Jews.

That pull toward Jewish community is likely one of the most long-standing raisons d’être for Hillel, the Jewish student organization.

The parent organization, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. Founded more than 80 years ago, it engages Jewish students at more than 500 colleges and universities in the U.S., Israel, the former Soviet Union and South America.

In Milwaukee, the local Hillel Foundation, centered in a house just one block away from the UWM campus, also serves Jewish students at Marquette University and nine other smaller colleges in the Milwaukee area, including the Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and Milwaukee School of Engineering, among others.

In light of recent increased local media attention on Hillel Foundation as a result of its plan to build a new building to replace its outdated and outgrown facility on N. Stowell Ave., The Chronicle took a look at a week in the life of Hillel to see who it serves and what it offers, as well as what is on the minds of the students who engage with it.

And though it was not a typical week, according to executive director Heidi Rattner, it was an exciting week, she said. Students had just returned to their campuses after winter break, with Marquette students starting their second week of classes and UWM students beginning second semester on Monday, Jan. 22.

The week started off with a Sunday bagel brunch and planning session by student leaders and concluded with Shabbat 180, a celebration to kick off 2007, on Friday evening, Jan. 26.

Shabbat 180, named for the number of attendees Hillel intended to attract, included Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Kabbalat Shabbat services in three locations, followed by Shabbat dinner and a comedy performance in the UWM Student Union ballroom. According to Rattner, attendance hit close to the goal with 165 students, faculty and community members.

On Tuesday, some 20 students gathered to meet and eat with three Israeli chefs who were visiting Milwaukee as part of its Partnership 2000 relationship with Israel’s Sovev Kinneret region.

Jewish Education Tuesday, affectionately known a “JE Tuesday,” is Hillel’s main ongoing event, one of the two or three weekly events at Hillel. It typically begins with a free student-cooked meal followed by a guest speaker on a topic of contemporary Jewish interest.

‘Date Your Future’

Hillel’s activities often emerge from students’ interests and ideas. One example is the coming series, “What’s next? 7 programs that will help you transition to life after college,” which kicks off with “Date Your Future,” on Feb. 20.

Organized like a speed dating event, the initial program brings local business and professional people to meet students and give them an opportunity to learn about career options and perhaps find a mentor.

The series continues with programs on resume preparation, Judaism and business ethics, interview tips and an introduction to prospective employers from area Jewish organizations, among other topics.

Other ongoing programs take a decidedly lighter touch. Because “students sometimes like to be with their own gender,” according to Rattner, Hillel offers “That Time of the Month,” social time for female students, and “Man Night,” centering around poker, for male students.

UWM sophomore Jason Kipp, an architecture student from St. Paul, Minn., likes outdoor activities and he has provided the impetus for Hillel’s horseback riding, tubing, skiing, kayaking and ice-skating outings.

Another idea that emerged from student interest is “Explore 414,” in which students visit Milwaukee-area synagogues for Shabbat services. While Hillel hosts Shabbat services once a month, Rattner said, she likes to give students the opportunity to connect with local congregations.

For the 21 to 30 age group, Hillel co-sponsors the Young Jewish Adults of Milwaukee with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Young Leadership Division and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.

How many Jewish
students?

Although UWM does not ask students about their religion and Rattner does not know just how many UWM students are Jewish, she said that about 300 identify themselves as Jewish.

“We think there are probably another 300 who do not identify themselves,” but there could be 400 or 500, Rattner said.

At Marquette, where the administration does give students a chance to go on record with their religious affiliation, Rattner said there are 75-100 Jewish undergraduates and “several dozen more” in the dental and law schools. In all, Rattner said that Hillel sees about 150 to 200 different Jewish students each year.

Hillel is seeing more and more children of interfaith marriages, Rattner noted. According to Benji Berlow, Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow, 47 percent of current Jewish college students have two Jewish parents, but over 40 percent have just one Jewish parent.

Berlow — along with Rattner, program director Heather Zucker and part-timer Debbie Carter Berkson — is devoted to reaching as many Jewish students as possible, regardless of their affiliation or denomination.

Berlow defines his work as “making Judaism accessible and creating low-barrier programs,” he said, adding that lowering barriers may mean making a program free of charge, locating it in a place that doesn’t require transportation or not labeling it as “Jewish only.”

“The Millennial generation [the generation in college now] prefers things open to everyone,” Berlow said.

Approximately twice a week Berlow greets students as he “tables” in a busy area of the UWM Union and approximately twice a month he spends time on the Marquette campus, meeting students for coffee.

“The point is to be out there to meet students,” he said in the Union last week as he sat beside a table decorated with an Israeli flag and laden with brochures and fliers about Hillel, Jewish and Israel activities and programs.

On Wednesday afternoon last week, the range of students that approached Berlow for a cookie and a chat included a number of students who regularly participate in Hillel events as well as others who seemed to have noticed the Hillel table for the first time.

Besides reaching out to Jewish students, tabling allows Hillel to offer non-Jewish students a chance to learn about Jews and Israel. A Muslim girl in a headscarf, an aquaintance of Berlow’s, came over to the Hillel table to greet him.

He said that he is trying to build communication with Muslim students, partly in anticipation of “One Arab. One Jew. One Stage. Two Very Funny Guys.” a Hillel sponsored comedy act coming up in April.

“Even if we don’t agree, we are looking for common ground,” Berlow said. “Showing the Israeli flag has brought people to the table to ask questions,” he said.